More than three decades ago, psychologist Aaron Beck and his student David Burns explored the idea of the cognitive distortion, or an assumption the mind makes that isn’t objectively true. Even though they are inaccurate, they sound rational, and so they trap us in a cycle of negative thinking and behavior. In alphabetical order, here are the most common cognitive distortions. Do you recognize any of them?
Black and White Thinking
We tend to place people and situations in either/or categories. Either something or someone is all good or all bad. Shades of gray don’t exist, leading us to view ourselves and others as failures if we aren’t 100 percent perfect in every way.
As victims of blaming, we either constantly chastise ourselves for things that are not our fault, or we transfer all responsibility to other people without objectively considering our own role in the situation.
No matter how many times life hands us lemonade, we expect lemons. Misfortune is likely in every situation and there’s little we can do about it. When we hear about something bad happening to another person, we feel certain that the same thing will happen to us.
We assume that, with enough effort, we have the power to transform others, and we believe that we can’t be happy unless other people change to suit our needs.
We may be either internally or externally controlled – and they’re both bad. Too much internal control means that we take responsibility for the pain and happiness of the people in our lives. Too much external control means that everything that happens is the result of fate and we bear no personal responsibility.
When we feel an emotion about something, we assume that something must be true. We believe our feelings are a completely accurate portrayal of reality, which is of course not the case.
We have an implicit belief that every situation must be fair and are constantly examining whether we are being dealt with in a just manner. Because other people won’t always agree with us about what is fair, and because sometimes the universe works in mysterious ways, we end up feeling cheated and resentful.
During the course of a single work day, we might experience 12 positive incidents and 1 negative incident, yet our mind will focus solely on the negative incident and blow it out of proportion until our perception of the whole day is soured.
Heaven’s Reward Fallacy
We go through life as martyrs, thinking that if we sacrifice for the greater good, we will be rewarded with good things. We incorrectly believe that some great force is up there keeping score.
Jumping to Conclusions
Although we aren’t mind readers, we think we know how other people feel without them telling us, and we anticipate what they’re going to do before they do it. We interact with them based on an assumption that’s likely inaccurate.
A single error or behavior may cause us to attach a negative label to a person or situation. For instance, if a fellow passenger cuts in line at airport security, we may say: “he’s so selfish.” We may also attach negative, overarching labels to ourselves based on failing at specific tasks. For example, we may say: “I’m a bad parent,” because we didn’t handle a simple conflict with a child as effectively as we could have.
When something bad happens once, we assume it will keep happening, and we’ll draw a general conclusion (typically a negative one) based on a single piece of evidence.
We often look for the insult or personal affront in others’ behavior toward us. We may also view ourselves as the reason behind an external event over which we had no control.
We’re convinced that our beliefs and opinions are correct and that other people are wrong. We will argue with others until the cows come home because we can’t imagine that we’re the ones who are mistaken.
I’ve talked about this one before. We create mental scripts about how people are supposed to behave and how life is supposed to proceed. We get upset with ourselves when we don’t follow the rules, and upset with others when they don’t.
So how do you get around these cognitive distortions before they ruin your life and work?
The first step is simply to identify when you’re engaging in negative thinking and try to refute the thought in your mind.
For instance, if you wake up in a bad mood, you might arrive at work feeling inadequate and incompetent. But once you recognize that feeling inadequate and incompetent doesn’t mean you are (emotional reasoning), you can coach yourself with positive thoughts like, “I was the only one in the group to get promoted last year,” and “my boss trusted me to draft his report for the general manager.” Your emotions might not change immediately, but you’ll be much better equipped to get on with your day.